Book Review: “Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition”

Needless to say, I recommend the book very, very highly. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

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Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani, and Jana Rumminger (eds.)
Oneworld Publications, 2014. ix, 286 pages.
Published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (details below)

At a time when men’s assumption of leadership roles through all-male events and publications is a popular phenomenon, Men in Charge?, a byproduct of a project by the women-led organization Musawah, could not have been published at a more opportune moment. Comprising a Foreword by Zainah Anwar, Musawah’s director, an Introduction by the editors, and ten chapters from academics and activists of varied backgrounds, the book historicizes and problematizes the Islamic notion of qiwāmah (authority) and wilāyah (guardianship), among other legal patriarchal precepts. It successfully argues that the Islamic legal tradition with regards to gender roles rests on the false notion of men’s superiority to women. Men in Charge? carries immeasurable value for scholars and students of Islam, religion, and women’s and gender studies, activists working towards gender-egalitarianism, and (Muslim) feminists seeking empowerment within a religious framework; it also speaks to reform leaders and lawmakers in Muslim states, who might better understand the fundamental assumptions upon which family laws operate and their disconnect from the reality that women and families face. The book’s major success lies in covering several important layers of the myth of men’s authority: from the theoretical gaps in the notions of qiwāmah, wilāyah, istikhlāf, to a practical examination of the impact of these legal principles, and proposals for new and creative approaches for feminists to apply in their vision of a gender-egalitarian Islam.

Men in Charge? can be divided into two sections: the first a theoretical discussion on the problems raised through fiqh rulings on gender and the different ways that Muslim feminists can approach those problems, and the second an analysis on the practical impacts of the established ideals. Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s discussion in the first chapter—“Muslim Legal Tradition and the Challenge of Gender Equality”—effectively contextualizes the broader discussions in the book: what Muslim scholars have done in the early twentieth century to challenge the normative thought of the legal tradition in an effort towards more democratic and egalitarian family systems.


from here

There is an inconsistency between the “Islamic” understanding of woman according to the ideas of scholars from the past and those from the more modern period. This suggests that the idea of the woman is reified rather than clearly defined by “Islam.” In her chapter, Omaima Abou-Bakr, in “The Interpretive Legacy of Qiwāmah as an Exegetical Construct,” shows this by tracing the evolution of the meaning of the term qawwāmūn in the exegetical tradition; she demonstrates that through multiple interpretive philosophies, the Qur’an’s descriptive reference to men as qawwāmūn evolved historically into the normative prescriptive construction of qiyām (later qiwāmah). This concept thus gradually develops as a juristic model that shapes hierarchical gender relations in Muslim family dynamics.

This evolutionary approach is continued by Asma Lamrabet in “An Egalitarian Reading of the Concepts of Khilāfah, Wilāyah, and Qiwāmah.” She discusses the evolution of three concepts from what was, she argues, originally Qur’anically intended to be spiritual conceptions to what later emerges as a patriarchal tool against women: “istikhlāf (equality in building human civilization), wilāyah (shared responsibility of men and women), and qiwāmah (management of public and private space by men and women)” (p. 66). She also highlights the role of politics in the shifting definitions of these terms. Her argument that qiwāmah was never to be understood as an honor but a responsibility that functions exclusively within a normative framework of conjugal relations may be seen as a subtle reaffirmation of the traditional claim that husbands’ responsibility for their wives validates their authority over women. However, Lamrabet denies any direct link between responsibility and authority, arguing that existing links result from the patriarchal conceptual framework of traditional notions of marriage. The chapter is an excellent example of Muslim jurists’ compromising Qur’anic principles in order to enforce patriarchy.

Ayesha Chaudhry and Sa‘diyya Shaikh offer insightful strategies for feminists to apply in their vision of a more gender egalitarian Islam. In “Producing Gender-Egalitarian Islamic Law: A Case Study of Guardianship (Wilāyah) in Prophetic Practice,” Chaudhry illustrates the different ways through which Muslim feminists and reformers can challenge forced marriage and increase women’s agency in marriage and divorce. She suggests that viewing Prophet Muhammad as a complex figure who, while a part of a patriarchal social milieu, made efforts to interrupt patriarchy and limit men’s rights, would solidify the gender-egalitarian cause. Recognizing that her strategy may appear disingenuous and selective, Chaudhry reminds readers that selective approaches like this “have always appeared in Muslim writings, in the pre- and postcolonial periods” (p. 103). Similarly, Shaikh suggests, in her chapter “Islamic Law, Sufism, and Gender: Rethinking the Terms of the Debate,” that a Sufi-oriented approach to evaluating gender relations in fiqh can extract a benevolent interpretation of the Shari’ah. Her analysis of Ibn Arabi’s ontological framework based on the relationship between jamāl (beauty) and jalāl (majesty) as fundamental to Islam, as well as his religious constructions of “women,” “men,” and God-human relationships, are especially useful arguments for Muslim feminists. Further, Shaikh’s compelling discussion of Muslim religious anthropology, which “addresses question of what it means to be a human being from a religious perspective” (p. 106), provides new avenues for re-examining Muslims’ relations with each other and with God.

Concentrating on the family codes in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, Lynn Welchman’s chapter, “Qiwāmah and Wilāyah as Legal Postulates in Muslim Family Laws,” functions as a transition into the practical and legal adaptations of the concepts discussed in previous chapters. Welchman offers a brief history of the codification processes and the reforms of family laws in the Arab region under the aegis of larger political powers. Exploring issues of maintenance, obedience, divorce, and male guardianship over children, she also examines CEDAW reports on women in the Arab region and CEDAW committee’s critical engagements with laws that, taking a man’s qiwāmah as a norm, secure the husband’s status as the head of the family and the rights he enjoys in exchange.

The last three chapters examine the practical impacts of ideas of wilāyah and qiwāmah and their failure to speak to women’s realities as well as to protect women’s rights. In “Islamic Law Meets Human Rights: Reformulating Qiwāmah and Wilāyah for Personal Status Law Reform Advocacy in Egypt,” Marwa Sharafeldin examines Egyptian activists’ efforts to reform the current Personal Status Law (PSL) because of its detrimental effects on women and families. She explores the contentious relationship between the NGOs’ proposals for reforms and dominant Islamic jurisprudence: on the one hand, the reforms view qiwāmah as shared responsibility between spouses, but on the other, they maintain the historic juristic pairing of the wife’s obedience in exchange for the husband’s maintenance. Sharafeldin also shows that attempts at reform are highly influenced by political and socioeconomic factors in addition to the activists’ own ideological and religious situatedness. The author’s brief discussion on the relationship between knowledge and the authority, in interrogating traditional standards of valid interpretations of the Shari‘a, is a significant contribution to the volume.

In the next chapter, “‘Men are the Protectors and Maintainers of Women’: Three Fatwas on Spousal Roles and Rights,” Lena Larsen explores the ways in which Muslims deal with the tensions between the lived realities of Muslim women in Western Europe and the idealized notion of marital roles in juristic doctrine. Larsen concludes, from fatwas by Syed ad-Darsh and the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), that muftis maintain the prevailing juristic gender-complementarity and hierarchy model despite acknowledging the changing realities that challenge it. They fail to provide any substantive solutions to the new problems that juristic ideals pose for the contemporary Muslim family.

Co-written by Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger, “Understanding Qiwāmah and Wilāyah through Life Stories” continues the practical considerations of wilāyah and qiwāmah and shows the different ways that men’s juristic rights affect women. The authors’ aims to pursue the project of collecting women’s stories included producing knowledge that would facilitate social and political reforms in the participating countries. Many of the stories that they collected illustrate that male guardianship over females rarely functions as a system of security and protection for young women and instead becomes a tool of exploitation and marginalization. The women’s experiences with challenging and often oppressive gender relations in their marriages become a source of knowledge for them about Islam, or at least a motivating force to question the established norms and their pertinence to and impact on their lives.

The last chapter, “The Ethics of Tawhid over the Ethics of Qiwāmah,” presents a moving account by Amina Wadud where she exposes different failures of the idea of qiwāmah in fiqh. She first ponders the impact of a past of slavery on African-American family structures that dominant juristic discourses neither represent nor acknowledge. She then argues that that the notion of qiwāmah contradicts tawhid because it requires unequal relations among humans. The Tawhidic paradigm she proposes replaces the existing vertical hierarchy of God above man and man above woman with God above both men and women, where women and men are in direct and vertical relation with God but in direct and horizontal relation with each other.

The common themes pursued across the book deserve a mention. Some authors (Mir-Hosseini, Sharafeldin) explicitly point out that the reforms of family laws in Muslim countries fail to acknowledge the very assumptions of marriage posited by the Muslim legal tradition: that God placed women under male authority and that marriage is a contract of exchange and sale. Abou-Bakr and Lambrabet expose the circular logic that God granted men authority over women because men are superior to women due to their socially privileged status as men. Importantly, also, the discussion of gender privileges a specific set of gender roles and rights, overlooking other important ones; Welchman and Larsen briefly discuss the disregard of traditional inheritance rights, and Sharafeldin addresses the lack of mention of inheritance laws as well as women’s right to interfaith marriages in reforms. However, all three chapters could have benefited from a more thorough analysis of these neglects.

Men in Charge? maintains a fine balance of the theory and practice of qiwāmah and wilāyah. While at times feeling slightly repetitive—e.g., many chapters repeat the meanings and origin of the word qiwāmah—it promises to be an important part of the canon on Islamic feminist scholarship. The message of a clear contradiction between the Qur’an and its interpretations cannot be highlighted enough. Men in Charge? is a continuation of the Islamic feminist struggle to convey this message, to show the contradictions within the Islamic tradition itself, and in fact to deconstruct the mere idea of an “Islamic tradition” and question its authority.


A slightly shorter version of the above review was published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 33, Issue number 1, Winter 2016. I’m posting it here with permission from the editor. To learn about getting access to hard copies of the journal, please click here. (This brings me to say, by the way, that the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which publishes AJISS, is a very generous institution. I encourage students, especially grads, to visit their site frequently for funding and other important opportunities. God put barakah in their efforts.)

5 thoughts on “Book Review: “Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition”

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